Illustrator Spotlight: Josh O'Brien

© Josh O'Brien

March 8, 2015

This week we feature the very talented London-based illustrator and designer Josh O'Brien

Tell us about yourself and how you came to children’s illustration.

Well, hey! Thanks for having me on the spotlight. Pleasure to be here!

My route to children's books has been a long and winding one really. Although I've always loved art and drawing, from when I was very small, I never really took it seriously. 

When I was younger, I spent a lot of years working towards a career in filmmaking, and I originally learnt to draw the way I do now, in an attempt to learn how to do character animation. At the time, I wanted to become a Disney animator. 
© Josh O'Brien

It's only since I've learned to develop my own ideas and to value the skill of drawing in helping me realise those ideas that my artwork has taken over, I've found some kind of freedom in it, and discovered my passion for it so it's only in the last couple of years that I've taken it on as a career.

I have always enjoyed children's books, and have always admired the diversity and quality of different works to be found within them. Although I have no children of my own just yet, I'm a big believer in both education and the power of stories to help us navigate through our lives, I love that my illustrations and stories can effect the way children and others see the world, and hopefully enrich their lives in some way. I think that idea is very important. 

At the end of the day, it was being inspired by other artists' work that brought me to the idea of doing illustration for children. Artists like Jonny Duddle, Jon Klassen and Raymond Briggs

Now I've found it, I'm here, and doing it, I never want to stop.

You do a variety of illustration and character design.  How do you decide what projects to take on? Do your various types of work influence each other?

I do work in a range of fields, like animation and editorial illustration, children's books etc. but at the same time, all my work shares a common visual approach and I think you can get a definite sense of that when you look at my work.

I'm the first person in my family to take on an artistic career; pretty much everyone else is in the construction trade. My dad is a plasterer and has worked hard all his life and has a very strong work ethic, and I think, although I now make art for a living, a certain part of me comes at it with that same attitude passed down to me. 

© Josh O'Brien

If a job comes along, I try my hardest to find a way to do it. 
If people give me the compliment of liking my work so much and wanting me to work with them, I think it’s part of my job to find the properties within a brief that I can take an interest in, and will excite me enough to take the job on. 

Obviously in the real world, there are other factors that get in the way of that but that's always my intention to start off with. My main factor when appraising whether to take on a new job or not, is whether I feel like there's something in the material offered that I have a new take on or feel I, rather than the next guy, can bring something to.

I see it as important to have a consistent body of work, and a style of work that is quite solid, so that art directors and clients can see what they're going to get from working with me. The types of work that I do, for children and more adult audiences, do influence each other but mainly in the ideas and theme upon which the artwork is based. I'll sometimes have an idea for children's piece which I then decide could be twisted slightly to be a more interesting piece for an older audience and vice versa. 

Doing work for a whole range of stuff gives me the chance to take on so many different types of stories, and always brings me to new challenges and new adventures, and I love that. That variety is what keeps it fun.
 Can you walk us through your illustration process?

Sure! Every illustration and design needs a little bit of a fresh approach to meet the demands of that particular project, but in general my process for painting is generally the same. I work almost entirely digitally these days, as I can work at the speed of thought, not having to stop to mix colours or clean brushes.

My work stands or falls on the quality of the character design and the drawing. As the old saying goes, a bad drawing cannot make a good painting but a bad painting can be saved by good drawing.

Whether I'm working on an illustration or a character design, they all begin with copious thumbnail drawings. These are tiny little sketches which I can do quickly and simply, but they allow me to see the overall success of the piece straight away. It's at this stage that I find the best composition for a piece or the strongest pose for a character. All the building blocks of what's to come are laid down here. 

It's at this stage that I draw the piece up to full size, working simply at first, laying down the biggest shapes, and slowly working into the details, until everything is there. 

My painting process begins by blocking in the local colours, these are the actual colours of the object or character before their colours are effected by light or shadows. Once I'm happy, I'll begin painting in the light source to get a sense of the atmosphere and form of the objects I'm painting. 

Then finally I add depth and contrast by painting in the shadows. Although I work digitally my process is quite traditional, I work in very few layers and try to keep things as simple as possible.
I haven't really documented my process before, so I painted up this quick little monster, to show you what I'm talking about.  

© Josh O'Brien

What projects are you working on these days?

I try to keep a few different projects running alongside each other, and when I am not working for a client I have a stable of projects of my own that keep me busy. 

Right now I'm working for a author in on the other side of the world and I got to travel to Denmark recently to work on character design for a feature film, which was fantastic and I am currently working on a lot of children's book work for a client who is self publishing. 

© Josh O'Brien

So the day by day is pretty varied. I have a few pieces appearing in Highlights magazine which should be out soon. Unfortunately as I'm currently involved with all of it, I'm not actually allowed to tell anyone anything about any of it right now, but soon I'll be throwing news, and new work, left, right and center.

Of my own projects, I'm currently working up a dummy picture book that I hope to find a publisher for this year. It's an exciting story about a young boy who finds a dinosaur buried in ice in his back garden. I constantly have a few personal pieces on the go just for my own enjoyment and growth, and I'm just starting to develop my own apps as well, so this year is shaping up to be a lot of fun!

I also try to do a new painted sketch everyday for my followers on instagram and Facebook. That keeps me on my toes.
What are the top one or two things you would tell aspiring illustrators to do? 

When it comes to starting a career in illustration, I'm a bit of an anomaly. When I decided to see if I could carve out a career, I was in a dark place regarding a full time job I had at an art shop when I decided to up and leave. I had never had a commission, I didn't have a portfolio, and I was in debt. So I didn't give myself a very good start, but I managed to hold on and everything has gone well for me, and continues to go from strength to strength, after a lot of hard work.

© Josh O'Brien

My advice comes directly from experience: 

1.  Don't wait! If you want a career in illustration, or anything other job for that matter, you have to go after it now. Start working up your portfolio, learning how the industry works, talk to other artists currently working, find your voice as an artist, practise and make great work. 

2. Make sure you're ready and setup for a tough start, financially, emotionally and otherwise. I believe you can attain all of your dreams, no matter how far away they seem to be, as long as you attack them with passion and a huge amount of hard work, so if at all possible don't do what I did, make the transition as easy as possible.

3. You have to be professional, you have to be on time and punctual with deadlines (or preferably a day early), you have to be there for your clients and not hide from them should something go wrong. But professionalism isn't about being a robot or impersonal. I used to find the idea of being in business a daunting idea, and everyone seemed so far away from me, hidden behind all these walls and it's taken me a long time to realise that business is a bluff word. Behind it are the professionals, yes, but art directors, editors, producers, whoever; they're all just people at the end of the day, and you can talk to them as such. It's all about human connections from person to person, making friends and helping eachother.

What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The best advice I was given, in life and illustration was, learn to draw, and learn it well. Learning to draw opens up creativity within yourself, allows you to not only see the world around you but to observe it and break it down, interpret it in your own way; to understand how it's constructed and feel more connected to it. 

© Josh O'Brien

And from a more professional point of view, good drawing puts you on a path that means you can come at anything and tackle it with confidence. Everything I do starts with drawing. There is no barrier between what I can imagine, and what I can put on the page. That is invaluable. So learn to draw, and learn it well.
Who or what inspires you?

It goes without saying that I'm inspired by other artists. Everyone from portrait painters like John singer Sargent to Disney animators like Milt Kahl and Glen Keane, through to people that are working in the business now, and I have the pleasure of knowing, like Ben Whitehouse and Shaun Bryant

In fact, there's a connectivity and ease of communication between artists now through social media that has never really existed before. That whole idea and community inspires me a lot. 

I'm inspired by nature and science and the world around us and how it works. Lastly, not to get too soppy on you, but most of all I'm inspired by my family and getting to go through life everyday with my girlfriend Amy, and face it's challenges and successes together. That's what inspires me more than anything.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

Ha! Well, which secrets to give away.? When I was a kid I wanted to be a clown, I can ride a unicycle and juggle and all that. Also, I trained as a professional wrestler when I was 16, in Ireland of all places. I'd left school and that was my life plan at that point. My life could have been so different.

Where can we find you on the internet?

 I'm all over the place. My portfolio and blog can be found at, or you can find me on Instagram @josh_j_obrien, or

Josh is a freelance illustrator and character designer producing bold and captivating character based art and illustration for editorial, children's books, advertising and animation. 

He was born in the suburbs of Oxford in the mid 80’s where black university robes and ancient architecture were the order of the day. At the age of 11, his family moved to the back end of nowhere amongst the overgrown Irish countryside. Add to this concoction, a young boy’s propensity for mischief, a love of the fantastical and many, many hours of Jedi training with a stick for a lightsaber and there you’ll find him, in a nutshell. He now lives in London, UK, working with a wide range of clients and projects, and looking for the next adventure. He can be reached at Josh (at) joshjobrien (dot) com.


  1. Thank you for sharing Josh's work!! I especially love the girl with three bears and red wagon in the snow - so charming and adorable.

  2. You had me at the elf riding a penguin picture! I totally agree with the advice Josh was given about learning how to draw well. When people look at Picasso's later works, they may think he couldn't draw, but anyone who's studied art will know it was because he was actually an excellent renderer when he was young that helped him create the art in his later life that looks so effortlessly childish. It's always fairly obvious to experts just whose child-like drawings are done that way because they haven't mastered the foundations of drawing and whose are childlike because they *have* mastered it. :)

    Thanks for a great interview, Sylvia and Josh! Off to follow him on Instagram...

  3. Wonderful artwork! Thanks for a great interview Sylvia and Josh.

  4. Truly amazing illustrations! Thanks for sharing your process and background with us. I look forward to seeing all the news about your projects coming out!


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